31 May 2016

Ainoshima: Japan's legendary cat island

Relatively little has gone wrong over the course of my travels in Japan so far. The country is safe, people are friendly and helpful, and there's a surprising amount of English language signage to help you find your way about. However, whenever you go away to another country, particularly somewhere that you speak little or none of the language, there inevitably comes a day when you just can't seem to get wherever it is you're trying to get to. As various attempts to glean information from local people, that map you picked up at the station, and google (if you can figure out how to connect to the local wifi network, that is), all prove fruitless, your sense of frustration comes to a head and you have a strong desire to hop back on the train/bus you just got off of, go back to your hotel, bury your head in a pillow and pretend none of this ever happened. This is how I felt at one point when trying to find the legendary Cat Island.

Apparently, there are in fact 11 Cat Islands in Japan. The one I was trying to visit is called Ainoshima, and is an island off the coast of Fukuoka. Getting there seemed easy enough. Simply get the train to Nishitetsu Shingu station, then hop on the community bus to the port, from which ferries transport feline aficionados from all over the world to the island, multiple times a day.

However, after a cursory look around the bus station upon arrival, it became clear that there was absolutely nothing written in English, so it was impossible to work out which bus to take to the port and at what time it would depart. I went back to the station to ask the staff there, who taking a look at us, immediately knew where these two foreigners must be headed: Ainoshima Cat Island. I asked which bus number to take and he said that the bus had no number, and simply pointed at a picture of a green bus on the wall. He also told us what time the bus would depart. 

Perfect. So we walked back to the bus station and awaited the arrival of this mysterious green bus. The departure time came and went and still no sign of the green bus. I started to wonder whether the bus had to be green, or if the same model of bus in say a shade of blue or pink may be going the same way?

At this point a local man, also waiting for a bus, started talking to us in broken English, pointing at the bus timetable and informing us that there were 'no ferries'. Wonderful. However, given the fact that the weather was fine and it wasn't a Sunday or public holiday, I didn't quite believe that this could possibly be the case. Then, a bus arrived, and I asked the driver whether it was going to Shingu Port, and he also informed us that no it wasn't, and that there were no ferries.

This is when the strong desire to simply give up and get back on the train back began to rear its ugly head. However, I decided that since we had made it all the way out here, we may as well try to find our way to the port by foot, and then if there were indeed no ferries, we would simply have a look around the port, have lunch and then go home. I wasn't about to give up just yet.

It was actually straight forward to walk to the port by foot, taking only about 20 minutes. When we got to the ferry terminal, we saw that there were indeed no ferries, for three hours from 11.30. However, at 14.30 a ferry would depart and take us to our final destination - hurrah! 

This meant that we had roughly 90 minutes to spare. Luckily there was a restaurant, Bistro Le Port, directly opposite the terminal. I had pretty low expectations of this mediterranean-inspired bistro opposite a ferry terminal in the middle of nowhere, but happily I was proved wrong. The owner only spoke Japanese and French (no English!) but I did discover that he had lived in France and obviously took pride in this little bistro he had opened. We opted for the pasta set menu, and he also strongly suggested that I try the osusume (recommended) starter, which turned out to be an incredibly delicious garlic butter vegetable medley topped with filo pastry. The main was a simple but tasty clam spaghetti.

Bistro Le Port, with my ghostly reflection in the door

The recommended starter: filo pastry on top...

... and garlicky veggie goodness in the middle

After our lunchtime trip to the mediterranean, we hoped on the ferry to Ainoshima. The port area where the ferry docks is where the majority of the cats hang out, and you can see lots of them without ever having to stroll further than 10 minutes or so from the port. The island is a fishing village, which may partly explain the predominance of cats (lots of tasty fish scraps for them to enjoy!). Despite several signs asking visitors to not feed the cats, I saw a lot of people had come prepared with tasty tidbits to lure the feral cats.

A lot of the cats were snoozing:

Others were seeking shade:

Some were having a snack:

Others were hiding:

Most were just hanging out, happy to pose for tourists:

Even though the main draw for tourists is the cats, the island actually has plenty more to offer. If you can tear yourself away from taking photos of cats, the fishing village and port area is quite scenic to walk through, although there were a few areas where junk had been dumped/abandoned. However, these are often the areas that the cats like to hide in, so keep an eye out for them!

After walking through the village, you can walk to the more remote part of the island. A couple of kilometres away from the main port area, there is a pebble beach with beautiful views of the bay and over to the mainland. There's also an impressive stone arch out at sea.

After a pleasant couple of hours on the island, we caught the last ferry back to the mainland. As much as I enjoyed my trip, I didn't have any desire to find out what might happen to a couple of tourists stranded on an island full of wild cats overnight!

Ainoshima is a must-visit for cat lovers in the Fukuoka area; but also a pleasant island get-away for those less enamoured with the furry creatures.

Unfortunately it was only after my struggle to find Cat Island that I found this really handy post on Zooming Japan, which provides details on how to get there, including explanations of the the bus and ferry timetables. Definitely take a look at that post for further details if you plan to visit.

What do you think of Japan's cat islands?

23 May 2016

Fukuoka Museum Week 2016

Just over a week ago, I travelled south from Osaka to Fukuokavia the speedy shinkansen  (on the Nozomi service, which means 'hope' apparently). Fukuoka is Kyushu's largest city, and it's a lot hotter down here, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees celsius on a few of the days since I've been here. For this reason, the prospect of visiting air conditioned museums has been very alluring. 

What began as a search simply for somewhere to cool off, has lead to the discovery that Fukuoka actually has a fair bit to offer in terms of art and culture. Luckily, I happened to arrive in the city during Fukuoka Museum Week (14 - 22 May) and so have been to able explore the area's museums at a reduced price. Most of the museums have been offering free entry to their permanent collections, whilst temporary exhibitions remain the same price. I've actually been surprised by the number and variety of museums, and how good they are. If you are interested in art, culture, and history you'll find a few things of interest here. Below are just the museums that I visited, but there were more than 10 venues that participated in Fukuoka Museum Week.

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum
FAAM claims to be the only museum in the world to systematically collect modern and contemporary Asian art. So if you have an interest in Asian art, it is a must-see. They have over 2,800 works from 22 Asian countries and their galleries show rotating exhibitions displaying different items from the collection. They also have a temporary exhibition space. When I visited, the galleries had curated the following three exhibitions from their permanent collection: 

Amazing! So Real! The Art of Likeness

Julie Lluch (Philippines) 'Cutting Onions Always Makes Me Cry' 1998

This exhibition was designed to complement the temporary exhibition of Chinese photorealism in the museum, by displaying lifelike representations of subjects from other Asian countries.

Forests of Meditation

Baet Yeok Kuan (Singapore) 'Fire' 1992

This exhibition displayed a variety of works formed around the concept of meditation, in media such as sculpture, video, collage and painting.

Asia Collection 100

Gregorius Sidharta Soegijo (Indonesia) 'Weeping Goddess' (1977)

This exhibition selected 100 highlights from the museum's permanent collection. All in all the museum was a really worthwhile place to visit, as it gave an interesting insight into the diversity of pieces being produced by artists across Asia.

Hakata Machiya Folk Museum
This museum has both an exhibition space, focusing on the folk history / culture of the area (such as the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival) and a restored townhouse showing the traditional architecture of the area. There is also a workshop where you can observe traditional crafts being made. This museum doesn't unfortunately have a huge amount in terms of English guidance, so I didn't learn as much as I'd hoped; but it's interesting enough to pop in to if you happen to be in the area.

Machiya Hall (restored)

Traditional crafts workshop

Fukuoka City Museum
This was the museum that impressed me the most. Fukuoka City Museum not only has an excellent, comprehensive exhibition on the history of the Fukuoka / Hakata area, from prehistoric times to the present day, it also had a really interesting temporary exhibition when I visited, called Secret Witches. This had a variety of art objects, books, and other items surrounding the history of witchcraft, mainly from collections in Germany and Austria. These ranged from an amulet of a mole's foot (!), to a two-headed cat pickled in a jar, to torture devices and of course a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum. Probably not one for the faint-hearted! I really enjoyed the fact that the exhibition didn't just focus on images of witches but actually had lots of objects relating to this history of witchcraft as well. The last room leant the exhibition a local relevance, focusing on the depiction of witches in contemporary Japanese culture (primarily anime/manga).

Entrance to the Fukuoka City Museum

The 'Secret Witches' exhibition entrance

Fukuoka Art Museum
This is located in the beautiful Ohori Park area, next to the ruins of Fukuoka Castle. The modern art collection has a pretty good range of pieces from artists including Anish Kapoor, Sarah Lucas, David Nash, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. I particularly liked the sculpture terrace, with views of the city and the park, and a lovely Yayoi Kusama piece.

Sculpture terrace

'Pumpkin' by Yayoi Kusama

That's it for my first post from Fukuoka. I'm staying here until the end of the month, and then moving to Okinawa for the summer. I still have plenty of to say about my experience staying in the Kansai region, so I will continue to post blogs about my time there over the summer (when I can tear myself away from the beach that is).

What kind of museum do you enjoy visiting most? Art / Design? History? Science?

17 May 2016

Universal Studios: Hollywood thrills in Japan

Universal Studios Japan was on my must-see list from the moment I knew I'd be staying in Osaka. Partly because I couldn't resist The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (despite having previously visited the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in the UK, the magic of Hogwarts remains as alluring as ever to the eternal Potter fan) and partly to make up for the fact that I have never had the opportunity to go to the Universal Studios resort in Orlando. Of course I thought it would be a fun day out (that's what theme parks are for, after all), but it well and truly exceeded my expectations. Upon queueing to buy a ticket, I wondered what kind of thrill-seeking rollercoaster addict would possibly go for the 2-day ticket option. By the time I left, I wished I had time to return for a second day!

The park is divided into different themed sections. Some are for one film alone (such as Amity Village, created for Jaws) and others are based on real-life locations where multiple films are set (like San Francisco or Hollywood). Each area tends to have a mixture of rides, shows, themed restaurants and other amusements, meaning there's a lot to take in! My first port of call was, unsurprisingly, the Harry Potter area. This not only had a massive replica of Hogwarts, but also Hogsmeade at its base, which was complete with shops such as Ollivander's and Zonko's Joke Shop as well as the well-known establishments the Hog's Head and Three Broomsticks.

Welcome to Hogsmeade

The Hogwarts Express has arrived!

You can have a drink in the Hog's Head!

"The management will not take responsibility if you lose your head"

The obligatory butterbeer - with souvenir glass

Of course, you can have pumpkin juice if you prefer!

You can stroll through Hogsmeade and look in the many shops

You can buy every flavour beans - if you dare!

Shelves of novelty items at Zonko's Joke Shop

Hogwarts in all its glory

Once you've soaked in all of that, there are also two rides you can enjoy in the Harry Potter area. The one you must go on is inside Hogwarts itself. Even if you're not interested in the ride, you really should go as it allows you to explore the inside of Hogwarts! It has everything from Dumbeldore's office to the moving portraits in the corridors, all in impressive detail. The ride itself is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and you experience flying through the air on a broomstick in 3D. It's kind of hard to explain the sensation, but it was amazing and I was alternately whooping, grinning and squealing throughout.

The other ride is Flight of the Hippogriff, which is fun, but definitely too short. You do however get to walk past Hagrid's Hut whilst queueing, which is cool.

Hagrid's Hut. The lights are on: I wonder if anyone's home?

After we'd soaked up the atmosphere in Hogsmeade, we started to work our way around the park. First, we landed in Amity Village, the location for Jaws. The Jaws ride is described as a 'boat tour of fear' but my experience was more that of sheer amusement over fear. We embarked upon the boat tour with a female guide, and it started with her excitedly describing the virtues of Amity Village to us (in Japanese, which added to the hilarity), but as the shark attacks began, she quickly became hysterical, all the while trying to protect us from the sharks with a fake gun, whilst also apologising profusely for the attacks. The sharks were impressive but the acting was just so over the top that it had me in stitches.

The queueing area for the ride had lots of Amity-esque decor

All appears to be calm as the boat tour begins...

Once we'd calmed our nerves (or should that be suppressed our giggles) we moved on to Jurassic Park. The area had lots of warning signs advising us how to act, should we stumble across a dinosaur. Jurassic Park: The Ride however allows you to experience some close encounters with a variety of dinosaurs via a water ride. This one's really fun, and ends in a 25 meter drop where you'll most likely get splashed. They also take a photo at this point, which you get to see as you exit the ride. My snapshot showed me grinning whilst simultaneously trying to hide behind my companion, which perfectly sums up the ride: fun and a little bit scary! After that, we'd worked up an appetite, so we headed over to Fossil Fuels and ate something that looked like a dinosaur drumstick but apparently was a turkey leg.

After said dinosaur drumstick, we needed to sit down for a little while to digest: so we watched the Universal Live Rock And Roll Show. I really wanted to see this, as it's the one part of the park that actually harks back to the beginnings of Universal Studios: those classic horror films the studio made in the 1920s to 1950s, with characters such as The Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula.

All of these and more featured in the show, which was great fun to watch, although I do have some bones to pick with whoever chose the songs for the show... no matter how much I love It's Raining Men and I Will Survive, these can hardly be classed as rock and roll songs!

Other rides/attractions worthy of mention are Back Draft (I'd never heard of the film, but the attraction ends with an impressive display of different pyrotechnic techniques used in films), the Back to the Future: The Ride (you get to travel through time in a DeLorean - need I say more?) and Terminator 2:3D which uses a clever mix of real footage, live actors and 3D effects to make you feel like you're in the centre of the action. With so many different amusements the day flew past, and soon enough the sun set and the park took on a completely different atmosphere.

One of the highlights of the day came when we were about to leave the park. I'd just gone into the Hello Kitty's Celebrity Style shop to buy merchandise (of course), when I came out to see that everyone was lining the streets. So we decided to see what it was all about, and found ourselves in the midst of the Magical Starlight Parade. We saw characters from Alice in Wonderland, Arabian Nights, Cinderella and more, all brought to life by hundreds of colourful lights.

It really was an incredible day! I hope I've inspired you to visit Universal Studios, should you ever be in Osaka. If you do, check out my tips below for how to make the most of your trip.

My tips for visiting Universal Studios Japan:

  • Arrive early: you want as many hours as you can get in this place, as there's a lot to do (and remember, you will inevitably spend some time queueing). Hours of operation vary, and you can check opening times for your visiting date here.
  • Stay until doors close: you don't want to miss the magical starlight parade! Plus the park with all its neon lights looks stunning once night falls.
  • Buy an Express Pass: if you are an adrenaline junkie and want to go on the more extreme rollercoaster rides (such as the Flying Dinosaur or Hollywood Dream - The Ride, you should buy an express pass to shorten your queuing times. I saw queue times of over 2 hours for some of these rides. If you want to buy an express pass, arrive at the resort as early as possible, as they only release a limited number of these each day.
  • There aren't just rides in the park, there are also shows, 'experiences', and parades. Take a look at one of the Studio Information boards to see the next start times of these, as well as current queueing times for rides, to help you plan your day.
  • I found that a lot of the rides had much shorter queues after 17.00. So if you find that one of the rides has too long a queue around lunch time for example, try again later in the day.
  • Remember spending money. You're not technically allowed to bring your own food and drink into the park (although I did bring my own water flask) so you will have to buy snacks and refreshments... plus there's a lot of cute merchandise on sale, which you many not be able to resist!
  • Remember you're in Japan, so any footage from films is dubbed into Japanese, and the actors in any rides/attractions also perform in Japanese.This is fine if you are already familiar with the film, but perhaps read up on any films you're unfamiliar with if you are planning on visiting the ride, so that you have some idea what's going on, as you won't understand the introduction!

Have you been to Universal Studios Japan? Do you have a favourite theme park?